Whether belting Sondheim onstage or debating points of a security policy, Aisley Wallace Harper, CAS/BA ’23, SPA/BA ’23, MS ’24, believes in bringing her fullest self to whatever she does.
The soon-to-be triple Eagle and recipient of the Eleanor Gomolinski Lally Endowed Fund graduated summa cum laude with dual-degrees in musical theatre and justice and law in May 2023. Now, Wallace Harper is on track to complete her master of science (MS) in terrorism and homeland security policy in summer 2024.
Wallace Harper has long known that her interests crossed disciplines.
“I've always been deeply embedded in the theatre community since I was a child, but I've also had a huge draw towards social justice issues,” says Wallace Harper.
The California native doubts there could have been a better place for her studies than American University—an instinct, she says, further validated by scholarship support “meaning the absolute world” to her and her aspirations.
While many universities would have allowed Wallace Harper to pursue political science or musical theatre, AU allowed her to study both—and—embark on an accelerated MS program while in her junior year.
“I actually came to AU because I absolutely loved how specific the majors could be when it came to concentrations. My concentration is in terrorism and security studies,” Wallace Harper explains. “As it turns out, I auditioned for a student-run show my first semester freshman year. I loved the people so much that I decided to audition for the musical theatre program here at AU and I got in.”
Wallace Harper points to AU as “one of a handful of universities in the United States” that offers a BA (rather than a bachelor of fine arts) in musical theatre. This program design meant that Wallace Harper could complete dual-degrees as an undergraduate. It’s a deliberate distinction, and one reflective of a post-disciplinary lens toward higher education.
For Wallace Harper, freedom from academic silos meant that she could optimize her learning potential. Small class sizes in her justice and law cohort allowed her to participate fully in discussions. And she is animated when describing the “wonderful professors” and “wonderful people” she met in AU’s musical theatre department.
Being part of both programs fueled Wallace Harper’s involvement across campus. In her final year as an undergraduate, Wallace Harper could be found onstage in Katzen Arts Center in roles including the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods and Meredith in Bat Boy. She served as President of the Student Advisory Committee for the AU Honors Program, helping to re-envision new opportunities for student-faculty collaboration, and held leadership roles within AU’s Criminal Justice Honors Society and March For Our Lives branches. At her May 2023 graduation, Wallace Harper sang the national anthem for the College of Arts and Sciences ceremony.
Wallace Harper sees theatre and justice studies as scene partners in constant societal dialogue. For her, few mediums probe the human condition as ever-presently and ever-relevantly as the arts. And having centered her senior capstone on political art, Wallace Harper is especially excited by AU’s new certificate in Social Action, Justice, and the Performing Arts. She says it’s exactly the type of program she searched for as a prospective student and “a sign” that makes her proud to be an AU alumna.
“That [cross-focus on social justice and the arts] is my heart right there, and I’m just so glad they're doing that,” says Wallace Harper. “Because the [overlap] is intrinsically there, and it's important, and it has such a deeply rooted history, not just worldwide, but especially in the US in terms of using art as a way to bring about change.”
Understanding the tectonics of social change is part of Wallace Harper’s decision to pursue graduate studies in terrorism policy at SPA. Within the program, she has focused on domestic terrorism—an increasingly urgent topic amidst incidences of hate-motivated gun violence and radicalization. She is interested in how terrorist ideologies gain traction and how this traction can be analyzed statistically.
“My focus has definitely been on domestic terrorism and white supremacy groups in the United States because we’ve seen this type of violence is unfortunately on the rise and has been for quite a few years now,” explains Wallace Harper. She credits AU’s responsiveness in bringing in professors and developing courses “to reflect that change in the United States that students need to learn about.”
Wallace Harper’s goal post-graduation is to work on counter-terrorism efforts for a federal agency. Motivated by what she’s learned about civilian safety and violence prevention in her MS program, she says her “absolute dream role” would be to lead a task force on current and emerging domestic supremacist groups.
Whether or not this role exists yet exactly as she’s picturing it, remarks Wallace Harper, doesn’t matter. AU Eagles make their ambition actionable. She has spent the past four and half years in an environment that emboldens her to never limit herself—even now as a grad student, she’ll be starring in Merrily We Roll Along at DC’s Keegan Theatre in winter 2024. For someone who’s most comfortable with “both/and” rather than “either/or,” Wallace Harper is confident that she’ll infuse her passions—plural—in whatever roles come her way.
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